See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt
Most of us are no doubt familiar with the infamous Lizzie Borden trial and the nursery rhyme about the axe murder of her stepmother and father. The gruesome crime has captured the public’s imagination since it occurred in 1892. Australian author Sarah Schmidt is the latest to turn her pen to this topic. Her debut novel See What I Have Done, recounts the day of the murders, as well as the days leading up to and immediately following them. The story is told from the perspectives of four narrators: Lizzie’s older sister Emma, the Borden’s Irish maid Bridget, a fictional and violent outsider Benjamin, and Lizzie herself. These narrators reveal events in a fragmented and often non-linear manner- a device that adds to the reader’s sense of unease and helps to build suspense.
What I enjoyed most about this unsettling novel was without a doubt Sarah Schmidt’s writing. Her descriptive prose grabbed me from the very first page. She uses language that evokes the senses-a point that heightens the ick factor given the subject matter. So many sentences gave me an almost visceral reaction. However, I found See What I Have Done to be just the right amount of creepy and chilling without crossing over into the category of unnecessary gore.
For the most part, I liked the multiple narrators. Schmidt painted such a vivid portrait of a childish and disturbed Lizzie, that it was often stifling and uncomfortable to remain too long inside her head. The other narrative perspectives were a welcome relief. That said, I don’t understand the inclusion of the character of Benjamin. I didn’t like his chapters and felt he brought nothing to the story. If Schmidt needed a character that was removed from the Borden family-in order to relate the events of the trial-I’m not sure why she couldn’t have just used Bridget’s perspective. Personally I think See What I Have Done would have been a much tighter, stronger novel with only the three female narrators-all of whom were based on real people-instead of with fictional Benjamin’s story tacked on.
Another issue I had was with the dialogue-most of which seemed slightly anachronistic to me. The ways in which the characters spoke to one another-and even their own thoughts inside of their heads-did not seem realistic or in keeping with the time. I also thought the novel dragged towards the end. I had really been enjoying my reading experience up until about the halfway mark, at which point I began to dread picking this up and just wanted to reach the end already. As I said, maybe I wouldn’t have felt this way without the addition of Benjamin’s chapters. I think the slight time jumps and the repetitive recalling of the Borden family’s past added to this feeling of tediousness as well.
Overall, I found See What I Have Done to be an interesting, although flawed novel. I really enjoyed Sarah Schmidt’s writing style and will be on the lookout for her future work.
**A huge thank you to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for the opportunity to read See What I Have Done in exchange for an honest review* *